Cellular agriculture is based on the idea of producing animal products without the animals. This technology has the potential to revolutionize the way we eat by making food production less resource intensive, more humane, better for our health and less harmful to the environment.
This technology sounds amazing, but it’s not without its challenges.
We need an alternative to Fetal Bovine Serum
Fetal Bovine Serum (FBS) plays a crucial role in culturing meat in vitro. It is what’s known as a serum — it is added to the culture medium to help provide meat cells with essential nutrients, carbohydrates, proteins and fats.
Although producers usually refer to it as a “by-product of the dairy industry”, FBS is literally the blood of a cow fetus which is extracted through a pulmonary needle from the womb of a dairy cow when she is being slaughtered. As the fetus is given no anesthetics prior to this process, it will undergo a painful death lasting up to 5 minutes.
Needless to say FBS has significant ethical issues both because of the painful way in which it is acquired, and also because it contradicts the goal of cellular agriculture — to produce animal products in such a way to be unreliant on animals. Yet here we are, designing a system that is almost vitaly dependent on the blood of said animal.
What’s more, due to its rarity, producers are able to demand a high price for it. In the past few years, it’s price has increased by over 300%. It currently costs up to $1000 per liter of FBS. Given that it takes about 50 litres of FBS to culture just one kilogram of meat, this easily puts the projected unit cost at over $50,000 per kilogram!
Additionally, FBS is typically undefined — it varies greatly depending on the animal, and so scientists can not quantify its specific chemical composition. This is not helpful in enabling scientists to predict the health of their cell lines which in turn presents some difficulties in scaling the technology to a commercial level.
Clearly, in order to make this technology cost effective and realize it’s ethical potential, we will need to develop a culture medium that is either unreliant on FBS or uses an alternative.
What would such an alternative be? Well, ideally, it would be renewable and accessible (and therefore cost effective), rich in nutrients and most importantly, plant based.
We need a way to make structured meat products.
Our current methods of culturing meat are capable of producing unstructured meat, but not so good at structured meat. Unstructured meat is, as it sounds, meat that doesn’t have a real structure (like ground beef). Structured meat, on the other hand, is meat that has a specific composition of cells — it’s not just the type of cells that characterize it, but the arrangement too (like steak). Getting a particular arrangement is not reliable by just allowing the cells to float around in the bioreactor and crossing our fingers.
So, we need something called a scaffold.
A scaffold is a mold which the cells grow in and around to form the specific shape and structure of the meat. The scaffold is usually placed inside the bioreactor so that the cells can get organized while they get specialized.
In recent years, scaffolds have been tested in decellularized plant tissue, chitosan and collagen. While each material does have its merits, their production is elaborate. This quality can be overcome on a small scale, but it does pose some challenges when scaled up to a commercial level.
So, why not skip the scaffold entirely?
Well, we can with 3D printing.
Using 3D printing allows production to not rely on scaffolding at all. It’s based around additive manufacturing — extruding the cells layer by layer until it forms a particular shape. This process is highly favoured because it is fast, cheap, highly controllable and does not use other materials which have the potential to interrupt or transmit incorrect biochemical cues.
The technology needs a better public perception
For many, cellular agriculture seems highly futuristic, urbanized and honestly, kind of weird. The idea of growing meat in a petri dish doesn’t really align with the quaint visions of farms that many have always held. But the reality of the situation is that the majority of animal products in the western world are not sourced from animals who spend their lives idling in the sun drenched meadows of cheerful red barns — in fact the situation is often the opposite.
The typical western factory farm is not at all short of an animal welfare nightmare. Cellular agriculture, on the other hand, poses no threat to ethical animal treatment (once we overcome FBS) because, well, it doesn’t rely on animals whatsoever.
Further, our food production system is highly wasteful — producing 1000 kg of meat takes
“26–33 GJ energy, 367–521 m³ water, 190–230 m² land, and emits 1900–2240 kg CO2-eq GHG emissions”.
On the other hand, producing the same quantity of meat in vitro has
“7–45% lower energy use… 78–96% lower GHG emissions, 99% lower land use, and 82–96% lower water use”.
This is a massive improvement, particularly given how desperately we need it in our times of changing climates and expanding populations.
But surely, producing our meat in a lab is not as healthy as a regular piece that comes from an animal?
Well, actually, most animals are raised with obscene amounts of antibiotics in order to counter the inevitable spread of bacteria that comes with living in such cramped conditions. Cellular agriculture does not require any of these extra “unnatural chemicals”, so in fact it’s better for consumers in the long term.
Cellular agriculture has numerous benefits in comparison to our conventional practises. We just have to make sure that we are able to express them to customers so that they feel safe when eating such products. After all, it’s not exactly normal to be eating animal tissue grown in a metal vat.
- We need an alternative culture medium to Fetal Bovine Serum that is accessible, renewable, rich in nutrients and plant based. This will also help drive down the technology’s cost.
- We need to develop a scaffold that can be easily produced or make use 3D printing in order to structure meat products.
- We need to keep changing public perception about cellular agriculture so that consumers aren’t deterred by it’s unconventional nature.
While these challenges may seem great, they must be overcome in order to fully realize the ethical potential of this incredible technology.